T he Single Mother
However disadvantaged the position of the married mother, she was fortunate by comparison to her unmarried sister. “An invisible mark of disgrace, inflicted upon them by an unjust and harsh morality, divides them from the others,” remarked the German social reformer Adele Schreiber of unmarried mothers. “Ashamed and humiliated, they must defy all natural laws and deny their motherhood.”57 In many literary works, the unmarried mother appeared as a martyr (in the words of the Italian poet Ada Negri, “A saint, not a sinner . . . crowned with diadem and thorns”) to the hypocrisy and injustice of the patriarchal family and of the Christian code of sexual morality.58 The status of the mother in marriage had been a constant, but fairly subdued theme in feminist politics; by contrast, that of the unmarried mother became a pivotal issue around which coalitions rallied and fractured.
Unlike the laws on the status of the mother in marriage, which were basically similar throughout Western Europe, the laws on “illegitimacy” differed widely according to country, and will therefore be examined separately. But one feature was common to all: the denial of a familial relationship between the child of unmarried parents and its father. Unless a father chose to recognize a child born to him outside of marriage (in Britain, not even then), the child had no right to use the father’s name, to belong to the father’s family, or to inherit from this family. Even paternity suits, in countries (chiefly those of Germanic language) where they were allowed, could not definitely establish biological relationship and its attendant rights. These laws were often attributed to the inexorable will of nature, which had made paternity uncertain, but in fact expressed the all too human interest of men in protecting themselves from the embarrassing and costly consequences of their premarital and extramarital relationships. The laws were also intended to discipline sexual behavior—not that of men, of course, but that of single women. If paternity suits were made easy, objected a German jurist in 1862, the result would be not only the “undermining of the morality of the female sex,” but the disruption of respectable households by “shameless wenches and their misbegotten brats.”59 In an era of high birthrates and high death rates, when statistics on infant mortality were not even recorded, the children themselves were considered expendable.
But this point of view changed conspicuously in the latter two decades of the nineteenth century, when children were perceived as an important and dwindling national resource. Concern for the survival of children turned the attention of public health authorities to rates of illegitimacy, which (due to cultural differences that were far too complex to explain here) varied widely: around 1900 about 3 percent of all births in Ireland and the Netherlands, 8 percent in Germany, 9 percent in France, 12 percent in Sweden, and 14 percent in the German-speaking part of Austria were to unmarried parents. These figures (low by comparison to those of the late twentieth century) do not convey the scope of the problem as seen by child-welfare activists, most of whom worked to provide services in large cities. Because of the tendency of pregnant girls from the countryside to migrate to cities in search of such services, rates of illegitimate birth were extremely high in many cities: in 1911, about 20 percent of all births in Leipzig, 22 percent in Copenhagen, 24 percent in Paris, and 30 percent in Munich and Stockholm were to single mothers.60
By all statistical measures the situation of these children was catastrophic. Around 1900, when the mortality rate for all infants under one year of age was high, “illegitimate” infants died at half again the rate of their “legitimate” age mates. In Germany in 1901 19 percent of all “legitimate” but 33 percent of all “illegitimate,” in Denmark 10 percent of all “legitimate” but 20 percent of all “illegitimate,” in Italy 16 percent of all “legitimate” but 23 percent of all “illegitimate” children (and 37.5 percent of the mostly “illegitimate” children placed in orphanages) died during their first year.61 Those who survived were considered likely to become the vagabonds, criminals, and prostitutes who formed the “army of evil” so feared by urban reformers and social-purity advocates.62 The modern state could no longer consider these children expendable, for it needed, in the words of the French author and humanitarian Alexandre Dumas the younger, “all the human beings whom nature indifferently creates and destroys.”63
The need to change the laws that affected unmarried mothers and children was thus widely acknowledged, but the complexity of their situation made solutions difficult. Assuming that premarital sex was taboo for women, feminist novelists usually portrayed middle-class single mothers as unconventional feminist heroines and their working-class counterparts as the victims of rich and heartless seducers.64 In fact, most were neither heroines nor victims, for the moral code of the urban or rural working-class cultures from which they came often condoned sexual relations between unmarried people as long as pregnancy resulted in marriage. The fact that the expected marriage had not taken place could be due to many causes, not just to the father’s intentional desertion—in many cases, he simply could not afford to found a household. Some unwed mothers lived, or wished to live, in two-parent families, in which the father was known. In other cases, the mother headed her own family and had, or wished to have, no contact with the father.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, the plight of the single mother, once an all but unmentionable topic, became a prominent theme of feminist publications. The Austrian feminist newspaper, NeuesFrauenleben (New Life for Women) publicized a case of a governess who was turned out on the street by her employer when she went into labor and then refused admission to the local hospital; “and so occurred an unbelievable event, which brings shame to our era—she gave birth without help on the steps of the house, on an evening when the temperature was fifteen degrees.”65
Public awareness of this problem was highest in France. In the 1890s, some Parisian maternity hospitals allowed women to give birth without revealing their names, and the Mothers’ Mutual Societies (Mutualities Maternelles)., insurance plans that were organized and funded by women’s labor unions, gave help to married and unmarried mothers alike.66 In the Netherlands, a pamphlet written in 1897 by a young woman who signed herself only “Amalasuntha” urged her compatriots to follow the French example. She pointed out the injustice of the moral standards that punished mothers for sexual behavior that was tolerated and condoned in men—even assuming that the unmarried mother had made a mistake, she deserved help, not
rejection.67 In 1897, a group of reformers that included many feminists founded the Mutual Society for the Protection of Women (Onderlinge Vrouwenbescherming), which provided various forms of assistance to destitute mothers. By 1902, this organization had eight branches in various cities and by 1911 it supported several homes for unmarried mothers and their children.68
The German League for the Protection of Mothers (Bund fur Mutterschutz, or BfM), founded in 1904 (its early history was reviewed in the previous chapter), sponsored shelters and other services for single mothers and children, and by 1908 had branches in ten German cities and a membership of 3800 (very large for such a radical group). Affiliates of the League were founded in Austria in 1908, and in Sweden in 1911.69 In Switzerland, a group that called itself the Association for the Protection of Women and Children (Verband fur Kinder – und Frauenschutz) began in 1911 to provide similar services.70 The members of these and many other groups realized that these charitable measures were by no means sufficient, and launched highly visible campaigns for the reform of the laws that condemned single mothers and their children to an outcast existence.
In Britain, a reform campaign began and ended in the 1890s. British laws were harsh indeed: the child of unmarried parents was “filius nullius,” the son of no one, who belonged legally neither to the mother’s nor to the father’s family, and was entitled to inherit from neither side. The mother, who acted as guardian, was permitted to sue the father only if her own resources were inadequate and then for only a very small fixed sum, which was not in any way related to his income. Unlike that of any other nation, British law did not permit the legitimation of the child, even by the subsequent marriage of the parents.71
In 1893, an association that called itself the Legitimation League was founded by a group of anarchists and feminists with the ostensible purpose of advocating legal reforms, which would permit the legitimation of children born outside of marriage. But in fact the group was much less interested in the welfare of children than in the defense of nonmarital sexual relationships, or “free love.” “We do not believe that the State has any concern with the relations of the sexes in the first place; and in the second place, we do not consider—even if it were right for the State to interfere—that it should make the contract binding for life,” declared the group’s secretary, Oswald Dawson.72 The League gained notoriety by supporting Edith Lanchester, a former teacher who openly set up housekeeping with her lover and was thereupon kidnaped by her father and committed to an insane asylum. Physicians attributed her obvious insanity to “over-education” and perhaps also to the pernicious influence of the best-selling novel, The Woman Who Did.73
Most British feminists were exceedingly skeptical about this group and about “free love,” which they identified with promiscuity. As Elaine Showalter points out, Allen’s controversial novel met with more skepticism than approval within the women’s movement. The prominent suffrage leader
Millicent Garrett Fawcett condemned the tendency “to link together the claims of woman to citizenship and social and industrial independence with attacks on marriage and the family.”74 Female letter-writers to the Legitimation League’s paper, The Adult, often expressed concern about the consequences of nonmarital relationships for children. The Adult responded with a symposium entitled “The Question of Children”—a question which a frequent contributor, R. B. Kerr, admitted that “some advocates of sex freedom” were “inclined to shirk.” As a solution, Kerr proposed that the state must grant a subsidy to every mother of dependent children. “For maternity is a great public service,” he insisted. “Nothing will do but to make maternity a profession; to pay it as liberally as other professions are paid; . . . and to make the woman who practises it entirely independent of the vagaries of any individual whatsoever.”75
A female contributor, Mary Reed, called this a hare-brained scheme which, if put into effect, would be more likely to benefit irresponsible fathers than their wretched children. She pointed out that under existing conditions a woman who entered a nonmarital union “has now the choice of remaining childless or of accepting the final responsibility of the children she bears. Is this a solution?” she skeptically asked.76 In fact the Legitimation League lasted only a few years and at its dissolution in 1898 had done nothing for the status of illegitimate children. Until World War I British feminists gave this issue less attention than those of other countries. The rate of illegitimacy in Britain was low (about 5 percent of all births), and the absence of military conscription, which made the sheer numbers of the rising generation less important than on the European continent, diminished the impact of the natalist arguments that buttressed continental campaigns on behalf of the “illegitimate.”
In the countries whose legal systems were based on the Napoleonic Code, the issue gained much higher public visibility. For unlike the British legal code, which at least in theory allowed paternity suits, the Napoleonic Code forbade them; “la recherche de la paternite est interdite,” declared the infamous Paragraph 340. During the nineteenth century, legal systems based on the Code were in force in France and in many nations that had earlier been included in the Napoleonic empire: Belgium, the Netherlands, the western lands of Germany, several cantons of Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Thus the debate on this provision was international in scope.
In the 1870s, French legislators who were appalled by their country’s recent defeat by Germany claimed that the law forbidding paternity suits contributed to the high rates of infant mortality that, combined with low birthrates, sapped military strength. All of the French feminist organizations founded in the 1890s made the “recherche de la paternite” one of their most prominent issues. Opposition to Paragraph 340 was a cause that transcended class lines. The middle-class French Group for Feminist Studies took the lead in formulating alternative legislation, and socialist leaders such as Leonie Rouzade, Aline Valette, and Nelly Roussel missed no opportunity to excoriate the “bourgeois morality” that victimized unmarried mothers and their children.77 Between 1883 and 1900, Gustave Rivet, a left-wing radical deputy from Grenoble, introduced four proposals to modify the law into the Chamber of Deputies (the last of which, in revised form, finally became law in 1912). Rivet was supported by male colleagues—among them Rene Viviani, Paul Strauss, and Maurice Viollette—who denounced the law as a disgrace to the French nation.78
But how should the law be modified? On this question, French feminists disagreed among themselves and with their male allies. For the latter, the goal was the encouragement of marriage, two-parent families, and responsible male behavior. They insisted that fathers must take responsibility for their illegitimate children by giving them, insofar as possible, the same status as children born into marriage, including the right to bear the father’s name and to inherit from him. Paternal recognition conferred paternal authority, which empowered the father to remove the child from the mother’s custody (in 1907, this law was changed to give parental power to whichever parent recognized the child first, but if both recognized the child simultaneously, the authority was given to the father). The laws proposed by these legislators assumed male innocence and female mendacity, and thus set high standards of proof. They all required plaintiffs to give evidence of rape, kidnaping, a false promise of marriage, or a paternal relationship acknowledged in writing. Mothers who led a “notoriously immoral life” were not regarded as credible plaintiffs. And the proposed laws made an exception for married men, whom they did not require to support children conceived in adultery. The purpose of the law, said its proponents, was to encourage new marriages, not to disrupt existing ones by violating the rights of “legitimate” wives and heirs. Children of incestuous unions were also excluded.79
Most French feminists objected that these provisions were intended to protect fathers more than mothers and children. A vocal minority set off a heated debate by objecting that the legalization of paternity suits was not the best solution to the problems of the unmarried mother and her child. At an international conference held in Paris in 1900 Maria Pognon, a founding member of the National Council of French Women (Cornell national des femmes frangaises), declared that “this research into paternity is a violation of the mother’s dignity,” and would “force the man to defend himself by blackening the reputation of the mother.” A better solution, she proposed, would be to establish a national maternity fund which would directly subsidize the mother and child.80 Although Pognon’s proposal was rejected by the majority of this conference, some influential feminist leaders agreed with her. Paternity suits, remarked Nelly Roussel, could only be a provisional measure, for their ultimate effect would be to “consolidate patriarchy.” “Only maternity is certain,” she insisted “Therefore, the child belongs to the woman, and should carry the name of the mother and depend only on her.”81 The French government took an important step toward supporting mothers by passing a law in 1904 that provided some financial assistance to indigent unmarried mothers.82
But most French feminists still believed that the delinquent father, though unworthy of the name or the powers of a parent, must be induced to support his child. In 1903 a group of feminists led by the National Council of French Women (Cornell national des femmesfrangaises) and the French Group for Feminist Studies introduced an alternative legislative proposal, which required merely a reasonable presumption (based on the existence of a sexual relationship with the mother at the time of conception) rather than a “proof” of paternity, gave the child a monetary support payment rather than rights of inheritance from the father, did not exclude children of adultery and incest and, most importantly, left parental power with the mother.83 Similar to the laws that were current in some Germanic-language countries of Europe, this law would have made the unmarried mother the head of a matrilineal household. The feminists’ political allies in the Chamber of Deputies, however, objected that such a law would not serve their purpose: to encourage marriage and responsible fatherhood.84 The law that was passed in 1912 required written proof of paternity, forbade the recognition of children of adultery or incest, and in addition provided for a heavy penalty for the plaintiff whose attempt to prove paternity was unsuccessful, and who therefore was automatically suspected of perjury.85 This law could benefit only a small minority of illegitimate children.
In Belgium and the Netherlands, both of which had legal codes based on the Napoleonic Code, the debate on the paragraph forbidding paternity suits followed a similar path. In 1894-95 the Belgian lawyer Louis Frank, a cofounder of the Belgian League for the Rights of Women, gave a course on women and the law at the University of Brussels.86 Frank called the statute on illegitimacy in the Belgian civil code a “barbarous violation of the rights of the child” and a “revolting injustice toward the mother” who bore “all the responsibility for an act committed by both parents.”87 The first program formulated by the Belgian League for the Rights of Women in 1897 demanded the right to investigate the paternity of children born to unmarried women. A law of 1908 allowed paternity, including inheritance rights, to be judicially recognized in cases that involved rape or abduction, and required support payments in other cases. As in the French law, men who were married at the time of the alleged pregnancy were immune to paternity suits: here, too, the rights of the “legitimate” family took precedence over those of children born outside it.88
In the Netherlands, the issue of paternity stimulated a broad debate on sexual morality and family structure. In the journal De Vrouw, a group led by Marie Mensing and Nellie van Kol asserted woman’s right to free love and to motherhood outside of marriage. This group, which historian Selma Sevenhuijsen associates with an “autonomous” form of feminism, urged that no mother should be forced to undergo the humiliating procedure of suing a delinquent father for child-support. Instead, she should be supported either by a community of women (as in the French Mothers’ Mutual Societies) or by the state. All children, insisted van Kol, were members of the “great national family, which is as legitimate as any other.”89
But Wilhelmina Drucker, the editor of the journal Evolutie and the head of the major Dutch feminist organization, the Free Women’s Association (Vrije VrouwenVereeniging), called this approach romantic and irresponsible. Drucker, born in 1847, was a child of unmarried parents who had been deserted by her father and knew from personal experience how much economic hardship and social discrimination were suffered by the “illegitimate.”90 She insisted that the real issue was the welfare of the child rather than the rights of the parents. “Parental duty,” she wrote, “defines the position of two individuals, who have merged their identities in a third human being.”91 Drucker believed that the child had a right to know its father, partly because an awareness of heredity and blood relationship served individual and social interests. She argued that the unmarried mother must be legally required to reveal the father’s name, and that the father should assume the same responsibility as he would have toward a child born in wedlock.92
In 1908, a new Dutch law required support payments from men who could reasonably be presumed to have fathered children, but did not make the child a member of the father’s family. Guardianship over the child could be exercised by the father or the mother (whichever recognized the child first) or by the state. If he could prove that other men might reasonably have fathered the child, the putative father could escape support obligations.93 This outcome did not meet the expectations of feminists.
Reformers in other countries where laws were derived from the Napoleonic Code also raised the issue of unmarried paternity. In Italy, Anna Maria Mozzoni, the founder of the League for the Promotion of Women’s Interests (Lega per lapromozione degli interessi femminili) in 1881, had by the 1890s become a supporter of the Italian Socialist Party. But the male leadership of the Party was not sympathetic to her version of feminism. As a member of a committee formed to propose a law permitting the investigation of paternity, Mozzoni was disturbed when some of her socialist colleagues declared that such laws would be only a provisional measure, to be superseded by a “matriarchal utopia” in which motherhood was supported by the state rather than by individual fathers. “That mothers do, and must do, everything possible for the welfare of their children is clear,” remarked Mozzoni, “but my opponents have not shown me why they want to emancipate men from their responsi – bilities.”94 In 1909 a reform proposal was introduced into the Italian parliament with the backing of the Italian National Council of Women, who denounced the “egotism of the male, which has not yet developed into the conscience of the father,” and urged Italian legislators to restore their nation’s honor by following the example set by so many other nations.95 But the revised measure was not passed. In Portugal, under the influence of the Republican League of Portuguese Women, the law was modified to permit some paternity suits in 1909.96
In Switzerland, where each canton had its own legal code, only those that had belonged to the Napoleonic Empire—chiefly French-speaking cantons in the West—prohibited paternity suits. When the first unified legal code was drafted for the Confederation, feminist organizations launched a major campaign for the reform of these statutes. Their success was very limited: the new legal code of 1912 allowed paternity suits in some cases, but (like the French law) exempted married men and those who alleged that the child’s mother had led an “immoral life” from support obligations.97
The Germanic legal traditions of Europe gave the unmarried mother and her child a marginally higher status than did the Napoleonic Code and the national codes derived from it. According to the laws of Germany (as of 1900) the unmarried mother was entitled to sue the putative father for the payment of the expenses of her delivery and for the support of the child until adulthood, usually until the age of sixteen. Such a claim required only the presumption, rather than the proof, of paternity: a man who had sexual relations with the woman at the time of conception could be identified as the father, and the burden was placed on the man to disprove paternity rather than on the woman to prove it. Unlike the French law that made membership in the father’s family the result of a successful paternity suit, the Germanic laws ruled out any blood relationship to the father, but defined the child as a full member of the mother’s family. Some French feminists admired these laws, but their German colleagues pointed out that they provided few real advantages. For the support obligation was low—usually based on the mother’s, rather than the father’s standard of living—and easy to evade. According to a principle cumbersomely known as the exceptio plurium concumbentium (“exception in the case of many partners”) a man could evade a support obligation by proving that other men might possibly have fathered the child. In this case, the child was punished for the mother’s alleged misbehavior by being deprived of support.98
In Germany as elsewhere, debates on this issue split the feminist movement. In 1896 the League of German Women’s Associations, which represented the mainstream woman’s movement, gave special mention to these laws in their protest against the provisions of the new Civil Code. “The unfavorable circumstances under which these unfortunate children live,” stated Olga von Beschwitz in her summary of the organization’s position, “results in the early death of a very large number, and the moral corruption of others.” The organization demanded that fathers be held accountable: support payments should be set according to the father’s rather than the mother’s standard of living, support must continue until the child was twenty-one rather than sixteen years of age, and above all the pernicious exceptio plurium must be repealed.99 The putative father, remarked the legal scholar Marianne Weber, could hardly complain if he were burdened with the support of someone else’s child, for he had assumed that risk when he entered the relationship with the mother.100 The organization also demanded that the guardianship of the child, which was assigned to the maternal grandfather or to a public agency, should be granted to the mother herself, but that she should be provided with an advisor to support her paternity suit.101 Most moderate feminists stopped short of integrating the child into the father’s family—a measure that they feared would threaten the rights of “legitimate” wives and children.
But the League for the Protection of Mothers took a more radical position. The group’s founder, Ruth Bre, who was herself of “illegitimate” birth, declared that unmarried mothers must be saved from the indignity of paternity suits by admission to an all-female community, supported by private funding and if necessary by the state. Like the Dutch Wilhelmina Drucker, however, Helene Stocker refused to consider a revival of the archaic mother-headed family. “A woman and a child,” she declared, “can never be a complete family.”102 But rather than defend the existing form of the two-parent household, legal marriage, Stocker and her colleagues reconfigured the discussion by discarding the entire concept of “legitimacy.” Parenthood, they asserted, should not require the permission of church and state, and the child’s rights should in no way depend on the marital status of the parents. Why, after all, should some children receive more support from their parents than others? The organization’s manifesto demanded that children, whether born inside or outside marriage, should have the same rights in regard to both father and mother, and that no member of such a family should be subject to legal discrimination or social ostracism.103
The leaders of the League combined a strong defense of individual liberty with an expansive vision of the state. Children were the nation’s future, the group’s manifestoes declared, and public policy should place the survival and welfare of the new generation above the protection of an outmoded and cruel religious morality. To the claims of physicians that the children of unmarried mothers were likely to be genetically inferior, Stocker and her colleagues responded that, on the contrary, these children were “a powerful source of national strength,” because most were born to lovers who were “in the bloom of youth and health.”104 The group called upon the Imperial, state, and local governments to aid these families through social insurance benefits, which should be distributed without regard to marital status.
The League’s defense of free love and unmarried motherhood was bitterly rejected not only by conservative pastors and politicians, who sometimes summoned the police to prohibit public appearances by the group’s spokespersons, but by the more respectable feminists of the League of German Women’s Organizations. The leader of that organization, Helene Lange, reproached Stocker and her colleagues with undermining the family and the very foundations of social order: “The women’s movement, within which women have become conscious of their responsibilities,” she declared, “can only emphasize one point. It will always regard the strengthening of the moral and social position of women, who are more devoted than men to the ideal of restricting sexual activity to marriage, as the solution of the ‘sexual question.’ ”105
A similar debate was carried on in Austria, where the law corresponded to that of Germany except that theoretically all the men who came into question as fathers could be made to support a child. The mainstream League of Austrian Women’s organizations (Bund Osterreichischer Frauenvereine) which was headed by Auguste Fickert, demanded that the child of unmarried parents should have rights of inheritance from the father and that nonmarital unions should have legal recognition.106 Both philanthropic and practical work on behalf of unmarried mothers and their children was carried out by the Austrian League for the Protection of Mothers, which was founded in 1911.107 However, in neither Germany nor Austria did these campaigns result in significant improvements in the legal status of unmarried mothers and their children during the prewar period.
In Scandinavia, campaigns to change the laws regarding “illegitimacy” met with greater success. Since the latter years of the nineteenth century, Scandinavia had been a center of child-welfare activism. In Sweden Frida Steenhoff, who was the first to announce the “century of the child,” insisted that every child must have a right to life, health, and education, regardless of the marital status of its parents. Another Swedish woman, Ellen Key, declared that every healthy woman, married or unmarried, had the right to become a mother, and carried this controversial message to a wide international audience in Europe and North America.108
Norway, where women won the right to vote in 1913, was the first country actually to pass a new law on the status of “illegitimate” children and provided an important example for other Western countries. The Norwegian law was introduced into the legislature 1909 and finally passed in 1915. It was named the Castberg Law for its author, the social-democratic Minister Johan Castberg, who was influenced by his relative, the activist Katti Anker-Moller.109 She herself favored state support for all mothers, regardless of marital status.110 But other Norwegian feminists were reluctant to let the father evade his responsibility, insisting that (in the words of a spokesperson at the 1910 International Congress of Women in Toronto) “before the duty of the municipality goes the duty of the father.”111 And in fact the legislation, when passed in 1915, represented a compromise between these two positions that was weighted toward paternal responsibility. In cases where paternity could be established, the “child of unmarried parents” (deliberately so named to avoid the pejorative term “illegitimate”) was entitled to carry the father’s name and to inherit from him. The father could be identified either by the mother herself (who was legally required to give his name to the authorities) or by other evidence that he had sexual relations with the mother at the time of impregnation (this term was used instead of the usual “conception” to stress the father’s responsibility). If several men came into question, all were responsible for paying a portion of the child’s maintenance. The child’s status differed from that of a “legitimate” child in only two important ways: the child normally lived with the mother, who was responsible for its care, and was entitled to financial support from the mother as well as the father. In the Germanic legal tradition, the Norwegian law integrated the child into the mother’s family.
In most respects, the Norwegian legislators validated the new ideal of the egalitarian couple who shared responsibility for the children in their care—a responsibility that was guaranteed by the state, which assumed some aspects of legal guardianship.112 An innovative aspect of the Norwegian law was that the responsibility for establishing and collecting support payments was given not to the mother herself, but to the local governmental authorities, who were empowered to enforce compliance. Recognizing that in some cases paternity would be impossible to establish, the law also provided for a municipal subsidy for indigent mothers and children.113
In this survey of international debates among feminists on the status of the unmarried mother and her child, we have seen that two discourses overlapped and conflicted, one centered on a matrilineal and mother-headed household, and another on an egalitarian parental couple, which even in the absence of legal marriage shared responsibility for their children. As both the Norwegian and the French cases suggest, the latter tendency prevailed. Lawgivers placed the major support obligation on fathers, and involved the state chiefly as the enforcer of that obligation.
Most feminists affirmed this solution; only a few pointed out that it was often the least realistic of all. Among these was the level-headed legal Camilla Jellinek, who in 1902 had founded a network of counseling centers (Rechtsschutzverband fur Frauen) in which female volunteers provided legal advice to women throughout Germany. Jellinek had assisted with hundreds of paternity suits, and had come to the conclusion that the notion of paternal responsibility “was fine in theory, but in fact a fantasy.” In the vast majority of cases, she complained, the father “cannot be found, or if he is found, has only enough money to support himself, or he has gotten married and has only enough to support his family, or even if he is required to pay, he changes his address so often that collection becomes impossible.”114 Jellinek approved of the role that the Norwegian law allotted to the state in collecting child support payments from fathers. But she was exceedingly skeptical about the provisions that established the child’s rights to support and inheritance from the father’s family. Most of these fathers, she pointed out, were not rich seducers, but as young and poor as the mothers of their children, and were unlikely to be able to fulfill their obligations. Jellinek concluded that for the sake of the children, who should not suffer for the imprudence of their parents, some form of state support for such families was the only solution. Even if the father never repaid the state, she concluded, “fully recovered mothers and healthy children would fully compensate the state for its support.”115
During the prewar period, feminists in several Western European countries joined a campaign that had two objectives: to transform marriage into an egalitarian and cooperative relationship, and to raise the status of unmarried mothers and their children. They hoped that both of these reforms would contribute to the resolution of the maternal dilemma by rescuing mothers from the subjection of marriage and the outcast disgrace of “illegitimate” child-bearing and recognizing them as free citizens. But this era’s debates also raised problems which would continue to beset policymakers throughout the twentieth century. For given that motherhood was now a public concern, how should the state support mothers? Indirectly, by encouraging monogamous marriage, vindicating the rights of married women, and enforcing paternal support obligations? Or directly, by recognizing and subsidizing mother-headed households? And which of these arrangements would do the most to promote the freedom and dignity of mothers? These questions would become even more important in the context of the debate on the economic basis of motherhood, which will be the subject of the next chapter.
The kindergarten of the Pestalozzi-Froebel House, an educational institution in Berlin. (Photograph from Clara Richter, Bilder aus dem Kinderleben des Pestalozzi-Froebel Hauses, Hamburg, 1904.)